How Avedon Blurred His Own Image
ON a morning in April 1967, Twiggy, the doe-eyed British modeling sensation, sat on a stool before Richard Avedon in his studio on East 58th Street. She had on a plain black dress and black fishnets, and it was her first session with the fashion photographer. She was 17.
As Avedon stood behind a Rolleiflex camera mounted on a tripod, the Kinks blared from a phonograph nearby. Since he began photographing beautiful women in the mid-1940s — first for Harper’s Bazaar, then Vogue — Avedon made it a practice to ask his models what music and food they preferred. This more than contributed to the relaxed atmosphere of the studio. “They all wanted to please him,” said Polly Mellen, the Vogue editor on that shoot.
Bending over the Rolleiflex, Avedon said, “All right, now, very straight,” and Twiggy sat up straight and turned her gaze to the camera.
Despite the hullabaloo she caused, which the writer Thomas Whiteside described in a profile that year in The New Yorker, Twiggy’s career was actually brief. It is Avedon’s pictures that make us think of her as the definitive ’60s child.
His gift was not merely for the alive moment — the model, her chin up, leaping cleanly over a puddle. Rather, it was for knowing which of the myriad of gestures produced the truest sense of the moment. Whiteside found Avedon’s process utterly unique, explaining he “exercised meticulous control over his model, almost as though he were working from a blueprint.”
That blueprint is, broadly, the subject of a retrospective at the International Center of Photography, from May 15 to Sept. 6.
From his earliest, sun-splashed pictures in 1944 to portraits in 2000 that convey his fashion fatigue, the I.C.P. exhibition is the largest survey of Avedon’s fashion work since the Metropolitan Museum show in 1978.
In both appearance and personality, Avedon cut the ideal figure of a fashion photographer, and five years after his death, at age 81, he remains that. His photographic style has been widely imitated, not least by Steven Meisel. Generations of models have sprung across mid-tone seamless backdrops, or sat pensively in cafes, or pretended to be in love or quite alone — all because of Avedon. And yet if his images retain their special power, if the experiences and emotions they present seem lived and not merely imitated, it may be because he is the more complete photographer.
A twice-married man, whose energy and trim, compact looks seemed to embody the word “flair,” Avedon often harbored doubts about his next project, yet recovered quickly. His great passion, outside of picture-making and his family, was the theater. A friend, the writer Adam Gopnik, reckoned that Avedon saw Mandy Patinkin’s one-man show 35 times in the space of a summer. “He lived for performance,” Mr. Gopnik said.
It’s probable that as a teenager in New York in the early ’40s — Avedon dropped out of DeWitt Clinton High School and enlisted in the merchant marine, where he learned basic photography — he saw not so much the fashion in the streets as the cosmopolitan gestures that animated it. Movement entered his pictures for Harper’s Bazaar soon after he arrived there. Storytelling followed, especially once he began shooting the Paris collections and invented street scenes for models like Dovima and Dorian Leigh, or his first wife, Doe Avedon.
Already on the masthead at Bazaar was Martin Munkacsi, the Hungarian-born photographer whose action shots impressed Henri Cartier-Bresson, among others. In later years, when he discussed his beginnings, Avedon often made Munkacsi out to be a more distant figure than he was, according to the exhibition’s curators, Carol Squiers and Vince Aletti.
Then again, Avedon always maintained that in every picture he was photographing himself. When Ms. Squiers asked the photographer Lillian Bassman, who spent summers with Avedon and their families on Fire Island, why he had his models running — or laughing — she replied: “Did you ever meet Dick? He was always jumping around.”
Outdoor shots and innovative photography were part of the terrain at Bazaar in the ’40s and ’50s. The cultural life in New York similarly enriched the work of other photographers, notably Irving Penn, who was at Vogue and who would be Avedon’s friend and rival for the next 40 years. So what made Avedon different?
HE was keenly aware that beauty had an element of tragedy — it faded, for one thing, or it came at a terrible loss of self. Growing up, Avedon heard his mother say to his sister Louise, who would eventually die, at 42, in a mental institution, “You’re so beautiful you don’t have to open your mouth.” This notion that beauty can be intoxicating but, equally, impoverishing to the soul, Ms. Squiers said, tinged Avedon’s early pictures with a feeling of compassion.
And it may never have completely left him. A photograph he made in 1998 of a robotic-looking model wearing a mouth plug seemed to circle back to his sister. Such pictures, made when he was a staff photographer at The New Yorker, suggested Avedon’s long view of fashion, but also a distinct side of his personality. “There was a real sadness about him,” said Norma Stevens, who joined his studio in 1976 and today runs the Richard Avedon Foundation. “He loved working, and he would be up for that. But it was like a performance. After that there would be a drop.”
Drawn to theatrical performers, Avedon took numerous portraits when he was at Bazaar, and, like Penn, derived a lot of artistic satisfaction from them. Yet into the ’60s, influenced by the Civil Rights movement and the poets of the counterculture, the portraits acquired a hardness that made critics question Avedon’s right to be more than a fashion photographer. An eviscerating review in 1964 by Robert Brustein of “Nothing Personal,” the book Avedon did with James Baldwin, left him unable to do serious projects for the next five years.
The crisis also affected his fashion work. “You can see he’s been knocked off his game in a lot of those pictures,” Ms. Squiers said. In 1965, Avedon left Bazaar and followed his close ally, Diana Vreeland, to Vogue. As at Bazaar, Vreeland gave him free rein and, more important, said Mr. Aletti, the curator, protected him from the interference of Vogue’s art director, Alexander Liberman.
Surprisingly, Avedon’s pictures in the ’60s of models like Twiggy and Penelope Tree were seen by some critics as anti-fashion. Avedon — the ’50s golden boy, the inspiration for Fred Astaire’s suave character in the movie “Funny Face” — was now savaging beauty and elegance. Not only was he fleeing from the confines of fashion magazines, he was also seeking revenge.
COMMENTS of this sort make you wonder how much the critics knew about fashion. If anything, Avedon’s stripped-down aesthetic and motion are representative of the era’s frenetic energy.
Mr. Gopnik, who first met Avedon in 1985 when the photographer was completing his series of portraits called “In the American West,” believes the attacks were motivated by jealousy and envy. People resented the famous, good-looking man who took such delight in his work and, at the same time, kept exploring new areas. “I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that,” Mr. Gopnik said.
Avedon’s photography has always amounted to a plea for beauty — to see it mysterious, to see it raw but ultimately to see it whole. To view his portraits in the ’50s and ’60s is to see the flip side of the decades’ stylish obsessions. And whether the faces were beautiful or ravaged, famous or not, the portraits relentlessly informed the fashion images, and vice versa.
Certainly by the ’90s, with notions like Prada’s ugly beauty, the categories of beauty had dissolved. For Avedon, though, the lines had faded long before, if they were ever that clear. Perhaps the famous “Avedon blur” expressed the futility, even the tragedy, of permanent beliefs.
“I certainly think — I know — that the apparent line between his fashion photography and his portraits was false, that he saw it as continuous work,” Mr. Gopnik said, adding that Avedon was amused at how people could look at the empty face of a model and find it more beautiful than the worn face of a coal miner. “It was not an affectation on his part,” he said. The I.C.P. exhibition, picking up where the 1978 Metropolitan show left off and allowing the first complete view of Avedon’s fashion photography, strips away the last shadows on his art..